A slight different theme to this ground hopping trip. Rather than going a few miles to and from a game and being back home for tea, this game involved lots of travel and took up 3 days.
Newcastle United were to play away at FC Brugges in the Europa League group stage. When the draw was made it looked a fantastic opportunity to get to a European game for the first time in many years. The added attraction was that my son Tom would be able to lose his European virginity. ( I mean going to an away European game – well the red light district in Bruges was apparently virtually non existent).
Initially it seemed that half of Newcastle were planning to go to Bruges with estimates of those planning to go being around 16,000. Then came the news that instead of the 5,500 tickets Birmingham City got for the game last season, Newcastle were to get around 1750 tickets. The official reasoning given was that Bruges expected to sell the rest of the tickets themselves.
Tickets were initially put on sale to season ticket holders with the most loyalty points. I no longer have my season ticket, but thanks to a friend unable to go repaying a favour, I managed to get one of the prized tickets. Sadly though no such luck for Tom. The tickets being as rare as rocking horse droppings, I was unable to get one for Tom.
However, by this time we had booked our train tickets and hotels, so we were going anyway- ticket or no ticket. Then came the warnings from the police in Bruges that despite European Law guaranteeing the right of free movement for EU Citizens throughout the EU, they had made it an offence to be from Newcastle and would arrest anyone without a ticket in Bruges on the match day & confiscate any alcohol at the borders. POLICE ILEGAL THREATS TO DETAIN PEOPLE.
These threats seem to have put some people off from travelling to Bruges and the estimated numbers by the beginning of this week were down to 5000.
The week before the game, somehow FC Brugges suddenly found 900 more tickets for Newcastle fans. The fact FC Brugges were a club in turmoil having sacked their manager and on a losing streak meant that they couldn’t come close to selling their tickets. Still no joy in getting a ticket though.
Wednesday afternoon we all met in St Pancras Station, Tom and some of the lads having been for a quick beer before I got their. I actually worked a full day before popping the mile or so to St Pancras from my work. Tom had come prepared having bought a 12 pack of beer for the train. However, the limit was 5 units of alcohol per person and we had roughly 24 units between 2 of us. His bag went through x-rays at baggage check with no problems, but they decided my back which had some clean underwear, 2 yoghurts and a phone charger needed to be searched. We then had a ridiculous stand off when they asked could they search the bag, I said go ahead and the jobsworth refused to search the bag and kept repeating could he have permission to search the bag. Quite what his problem was I do not know. Surprisingly, I remained calm and did not get any attention from the police present who seemed to wonder what the jobsworth’s problem was.
The trip on the Eurostar was only 2 hours to Brussels and passed quickly with the beers and swapping of war stories from previous campaigns. These European trips bring out the old faces from many years ago. These days some of the old faces really are looking old. A comment passed made us feel old. The Original Newcastle Bender Squad are now knocking 60 years of age. most of the NME (Newcastle Mainline Express) are now around 50 years old and even most of the original Gremlins are over 40 now. Too old to be the subject of police attention? Not likely! Northumbria’s finest still give everyone a hard time. Even if the topic of conversations these days are arthritis, injuries and who has died instead of where the opposition thugs can be found.
Anyway, a change of train in Brussels and 50 minutes later we were in Bruges. We had a hotel next to the station so it was a quick bag drop and then out for a drink. EXCEPT the station is 1/2 mile or more from any pubs. The walk from the station was down streets without lighting. This was to be a feature of Bruges, a lack of street lights. Anyway, we got to the town centre and it seemed deserted, most bars and cafes were shut. Indeed we drew a complete blank in trying to find food. A town without many fast food places – what is a football fan to do.
The first bar we found had a mad barman who was giving beer away if you raced him to drink it down. Good job it was free as 2 double vodkas cost 25 euros! Beer was 4 euros 40. Getting served there was a nightmare, so we moved on and found a bar where the woman running it was happy to play our requests, so it was a 1980s fest with lots of Madness, Specials, Jam etc. oh and numerous renditions of the Monkees Daydream Believer which we all sang along to! We left that bar just after 3am as it closed and instead of heading home went to another bar for a night cap or two. Here we met a rather annoying Hibs fan who seemed to want to come and repeatedly tell K he was Hibs. Not sure what his problem was, as we were by now down to 4 of us and just having a nightcap. He was told where to go, but didn’t take the hint initially. I suggested politely to him that he might like to go forth before he was helped on his way. This time he took the hint and skulked back to his acquaintances elsewhere in the bar. Eventually we got back to the hotel well after 4am- probably nearer 5 am in reality.
The room Tom and I had a double bed with a bunk bed over the top. I obviously graciously allowed Tom to have the top bunk, but after he got up to go to the loo in the night, he obviously could not manage the ladder as when I awoke bright and early at 11am he was asleep on the double bed as well.
Tom got up complaining about the cuts and bruising on his hand. He clearly had hit someone or something the previous night, but we couldn’t remember hitting anyone, even the annoying Hibs kid. When we met the rest of the lads, no one could remember any trouble either. Everyone concurred the injury looked as though he had hit someone or something. Medical treatment? Yes, we got him an anaesthetic
We had walked into the centre of town and found a bar a couple of streets away from the main square. This meant we could have a drink and avoid the attention of the police as best we could. Instead of paying 4.5 euros a drink in the pub we were drinking cans of Jupiler from the off licence across the road at 1 euro 40 a time. The landlord was happy with this as we were stood outside the pub and attracting others into the place.
We stayed here for around 5 hours having a quiet drink and a good laugh. Northumbria police did pass the pub whilst I was across the street. As they walked passed me, they were on the phone radioing in they had found a group at the Cafe de Kuppe – so we got out tick in the Northumbria Police I Spy book of football fans.
Even funnier was when the undercover Northumbria Police officers started to follow one group of Newcastle fans. They could not have been more obvious if they had tried. It didn’t help when one of them was on the radio in sight of the pub. They were laughed at by most and the various chants of “We know who you are” and “You’re old bill and we know you are” had them skulking away after initially trying to hide in a doorway.
The 2 Undercover officers standing out like a sore thumb
One thing I did notice whilst outside the bar was the number of people riding bikes and how the traffic was just so laid back. Very unlike England! At one point around 50-75 children rode on their bikes to the adjacent town hall for a lesson. These were kids around 10 years of age or younger. I couldn’t imagine that happening in England. There was no fuss made and not that many adults with them although there were 2 police motorcyclists with them.
Eventually, one of the lads decided he didn’t want to go to the game and sold Tom his ticket for face value, so it was time to go to the game. The police were putting buses on to the game leaving the Market Square at 5pm allegedly. We got there at 5:20 pm to find the special buses had gone without us. The police said to walk to the bus station and get a service bus. However the staff at the bus station said for us to walk to the ground and it was only a 20 minute walk. Well, 45 minutes later we were still walking. The traffic was gridlocked, so it was quicker than the service bus anyway. An hour’s walk eventually got us to the ground where we had our tickets checked something like 6 times before we got to the turnstiles. We were also subject to a search as well.
Into the ground and it was time to try to find our seats. This was easier said than done as the seats had no numbers on them. The stewards seemed to all have different ideas how you found which seats was which. The result was chaos.
The ground itself was sparsely populated. With barely 18,000 people in a 29,000 capacity ground.
The Home End – hardly full
The FC Brugges fans we taunted with chants of “We could have sold all your tickets” and the perennial favourite of “ They’re here, they’re there They are every f*cking where Empty seats” I at first thought there we S*nderland fans in fancy dress, but realised they were not dressed as pink seats.
The game itself started badly with Newcastle managing to make a very poor FC Bruges side look semi decent and let them get a 2 goal lead. I was going to leave at that point, but the thought of the 4km walk back to the town centre put me off. Newcastle did rally and by half time unbelievably were on level terms.
Half time brought more reminiscing with faces from the past before a drab second half was played out. We were kept locked into the ground for 20 or so minutes. When we left the ground, it soon became apparent there were no buses back to the town centre so it was a long walk back to the town centre and drinks in the main square area and playing the avoiding the police game.
As we had an early start, getting up at 04:35 the next morning to get ready for the train at 05:35, I went in search of food- but was unable to find anywhere that was open and was able to serve promptly. I ended up having a back of crisps in my hotel from the expensive vending machine – very good living – not.
Tom had decided to stay out for a drink with some of the others but said he would be turning in early. Well, as he was climbing the ladder to his bed, the alarm was going off t 4:35 am. So much for an early night. He came back with a souvenir beer glass. We did solve one mystery though. As Tom climbed up the ladder trying to get into bed he hit his hand on the artexed wall, This was what he had done the previous night as well and accounted for the injury on his hand. One of the other lads had a worse hand injury but I don’t think it was the wall he had hit!
There were some sorry sights on that 05:35 train to Brussels. I had a look round Brussels station in the hope of finding something to eat, but the only burger joint was the only place in the food court closed. So I had to make do with a croissant for breakfast – not good at soaking up the beer.
Arriving back at St Pancras goodbyes were said to the rather dishevelled and tired looking lads as I headed off home. tom was on his way to Sheffield having University work to hand in by 3pm. Some of the lads were heading back to the North East for a weekend of drinking at one of the lads weddings.
Me, I was so knackered that I went home rather than to the greasy spoon for breakfast. The sum total of my day today since getting home has been to speak to Michelle, which is the highlight of any day ( she made me write that) and typing this blog. I have lain on the sofa and fiddled with my laptop and watched old episodes of the Simpsons.
THOUGHTS ON THE TRIP
It was great to see so many old faces and have a good drink and laugh with them
It was good to see Tom enjoying himself at a European match. When I was his age, a European match meant a trip to Queen of the South for a pre season friendly.
I fail to see why people rave about Bruges. It was not particularly pretty. (It wasn’t ugly though),
Bruges seemed to have a ban on food after 10pm. Even the Burger Bar (QUICKS) was shut by 10pm.
The authorities in Bruges seem to have an aversion to street lights.
There is a lack of transport facilities to get anywhere near the football ground
The town centre itself is rather small and has little to attract anyone to it.
The beer was nothing special
I won’t be rushing to go back to Bruges. Its an unremarkable little town with little to make it stand out from any other Northern European town.
I did not take my camera to the ground, so the only photos I took of the ground were on my mobile phone. They are shown below along with some pictures I have got from the internet. It is not a particularly attractive ground, even though it was extended and refurbished for Euro 2000. Bare concrete and lack of seat numbers. The ground is like the town- nothing special
Oh and the title of this post? I lied about the chocolates. We never had time for them as it would have impinged on the drinking time.